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Magic Tricks
Jan 08, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

Back near the beginning of December, and with little fanfare, General Magic announced the availability of Magic Cap for Windows -- a port of their "state-of-the-art communication software" to the Windows platform.

This is pretty damn interesting news, considering that they are giving away the pre-release version of the system on their web site. It looks (and acts) just like the version that's running on Sony's Magic Link, albeit with some color thrown in for good measure. It's got a great user-interface (complete with a desk, an office, file cabinets, hallways, bookshelves, etc.), an easy-to-use PIM, and online help which is much, much more than "user manual shovelware."

But the real story is in the communications features. Magic Cap is built to talk to AT&T's PersonaLink service for email, faxes, etc. Magic Cap gives you a nice, user-friendly way to create and send outgoing messages, and a rule-based filtering system for dealing with incoming messages. They could have expanded the screen size a bit (it still looks like it belongs on a Magic Link), and the friendliness can be too friendly at times, but it's a very intelligently designed piece of software.

But something is amiss.

I was doing some surfing to prep for this piece, and came across some interesting news. It seems that on Thursday the 4th, the New York Times reported that in addition to laying off tens of thousands of workers, AT&T is dropping its investment in General Magic...

AT&T bought Easylink, an electronic-mail service, from Western Union in 1989 and then upgraded it with highly touted technology that was supposed to link ordinary computers with pagers and hand-held computers. But PersonalLink, as it was renamed, never took off. AT&T has abandoned its investment in the company that developed the technology, General Magic, Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Of course, this doesn't mean that AT&T is dropping the PersonaLink service quite yet. But it doesn't look good. Especially after AT&T announced last week that they're dropping the Interchange online service and focus efforts on a web-based Business Network.

Imagine this possible scenario. You're AT&T. You've invested big bucks in General Magic, as well as the network to support it (PersonaLink). But it just ain't happening. You start rumbling to General Magic that maybe they just aren't worth all the dough you've coughed up. And that you're thinking of scrapping PersonaLink. But General Magic wants one last shot. "Just wait until we port Magic Cap to Windows. Then the subscriber rate will take off. You'll see," they say. And General Magic then gives Magic Cap away, in a desperate attempt to attract new PersonaLink users and keep your cash coming...

Who knows. But if AT&T does kill all funding for General Magic, and does drop PersonaLink, then General Magic is going to have to scramble (fast!) to port Magic Cap technology to internet-based messaging services... Just to stay alive.

Come to think of it, if they did do that (and let me dial into my access provider and grab my mail), I just might consider dropping my Psion and buying one of those cool little Magic Links...

And here's a little morsel to chew on. One of the appendices to Daniel Burstein and David Kline's book Road Warriors is the text of a dinner conversation which included Marc Porat, CEO of General Magic. In that discussion, he mentions that one of his great concerns is a catastrophic disabling of the technology network. Beyond the obvious fear of being out of a job, Porat had some interesting thoughts on the "crutch" that technology has become...

We've abstracted ourselves [with technology] so much from not only our natural state but our civilized state. What if the systems break down? ... Once you lift all these technological tools away from us -- and by now we're habituated to them -- what do we do? How do people live?

A final note. If Porat is worried about being abstracted, then General Magic should just go ahead and kill Telescript, which promises to put personal network "agents" at work for us finding the news we want, the lowest plane fares available, and the best sushi bar west of the Mississippi that serves fresh catfish...

P.S. I got a couple of messages from folks responding to last week's prognostication re. the coming of cable modems in 1996. In my piece I said that since they are "one-way" communications, people won't be using them to host web sites any time soon. A couple diligent readers pointed me to @Home's network architecture, which does state that their backbone will support 128kbps out from the home. But I'm still sticking by my assertion that @Home won't support my desire to run out of my home using their modem. I've emailed @Home to see if they can clear this up for certain; I'll let you know what I hear.



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